August 14, 2009
Human Brain Classifies Images By Whether Living

Human brains treat living and non-living objects very differently. The brain has different regions for processing images of living and non-living.

For unknown reasons, the human brain distinctly separates the handling of images of living things from images of non-living things, processing each image type in a different area of the brain. For years, many scientists have assumed the brain segregated visual information in this manner to optimize processing the images themselves, but new research shows that even in people who have been blind since birth the brain still separates the concepts of living and non-living objects.

The research, published in today's issue of Neuron, implies that the brain categorizes objects based on the different types of subsequent consideration they demand—such as whether an object is edible, or is a landmark on the way home, or is a predator to run from. They are not categorized entirely by their appearance.

Only living things (or formerly living things) are food. Only living things will attack or run away. From the standpoint of basic survival it is not surprising our brains treat living things in fundamentally different ways. I suspect as a result of our evolutionary legacy we are overly biased toward thinking about living things. Due to a greater specialization of labor lots of us have jobs that involve working with non-living things such as designing and building objects. Maybe hunting as a sport is born out of a desire to fill a need in the mind to think about living things. Are men who work with non-living things more likely to hunt?

Even people blind from birth categorize living and non-living objects in different ways detectable via MRI brain scans.

To see if the appearance of objects is indeed key to how the brain conducts its processing, Mahon and his team, led by Alfonso Caramazza, director of the Cognitive Neuropsychology Laboratory at Harvard University, asked people who have been blind since birth to think about certain living and non-living objects. These people had no visual experience at all, so their brains necessarily determined where to do the processing using some criteria other than an object's appearance.

"When we looked at the MRI scans, it was pretty clear that blind people and sighted people were dividing up living and non-living processing in the same way," says Mahon. "We think these findings strongly encourage the view that the human brain's organization innately anticipates the different types of computations that must be carried out for different types of objects."

The researchers are looking for more ways to identify other innate processes of thinking.

Update: In the comments someone mentioned how people give nicknames to their iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner robots. I've read the same about US soldiers with their battlefield robots in Iraq. So I wonder: When you look at these pictures of robot vacuums do you feel you are looking at things that are in any way at least partially living?

So what's your emotional reaction?

I expect robots for kids to get classified by their brains as living things. South Park's AWESOM-O episode of Eric Cartman pretending to be a robot to Butters shows the future.

An innate tendency of humans to classify robots as living could lead us to create robots that we give rights to.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 August 14 08:23 AM  Brain Innate

Lono said at August 14, 2009 9:20 AM:

This is expected yet very interesting...

Just another example of how an artificial brain will differ greatly from an organic brain - one likely specifically tuned by millions of years of evolution.

Also - imho - one of the reasons that naturally occuring organic sentient life throughout the Universe will always have value to us - no matter the sophistication of our civilization...

David Govett said at August 14, 2009 10:18 AM:

I wouldn't be surprised to find that information regarding living (or formerly living) things is processed by much-faster circuits than information regarding nonliving things, since one's very survival could depend on it (predator, mate, food). I also would expect permanent memories to be laid down more readily for living things.

Xenophon Hendrix said at August 14, 2009 10:43 AM:

I wonder how we classify things that look like they are capable of making decisions but aren't really alive, such as Roomba vacuum cleaners and other free-ranging robots. I've read things where people talk about them as if they were pets or mascots.

bbartlog said at August 14, 2009 12:43 PM:

Very interesting. I wonder whether various kinds of toys that blur the boundary (stuffed animals, dolls, battery-powered robots or w/e) are fun in part because they tickle the brain in a funny way. But it wouldn't surprise me if an MRI showed that the brain isn't in the slightest confused by these.

matlock said at August 14, 2009 11:05 PM:

I would imagine that the brain would be "confused" by some things. I would expect that the brain would process "coral" in the same way as "rock" notwithstanding that the former is living. I note also the reference to the processing of "images" - presumably then when you look at the telly, you process an image of say Angelina Jolie differently from the room she is in.

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